Thinking with Sound: Starting a Podcast Project

Originally posted on Tagging the Tower. Written for the GC Digital Initiatives as one of the digital fellows in their program. This post is based off my experience in using podcast as a pedagogical tool as well as past consultations with folx interested in exploring podcast/audio recordings.

As we start to settle into the rhythms of our new normal, many of us have taken this opportunity to also think about the different ways to disseminate information. There has been a renewed interest in exploring digital sound and audio as this has become key to our means of communication. From teaching and learning online to data collections (e.g. interviews) to audio publishing, sound and audio projects are being integrated in a variety of new avenues… and this is really exciting to me! If you’ve followed my previous posts on this blog and/or workshops (you can find links to these at the end of the post), you may have noticed that I’ve mostly written about interviewing and recording tips as well as planned workshops relating to audio recording and editing; hence, this current exploration of sound really gets me going!

One of the more recent interests is actually regarding podcasts. We, the GC Digital Fellows, have received several consultation requests regarding podcast projects, from how to begin to edits and publishing platforms. In this blog post, I will be discussing some of the possibilities of doing a podcast project that may be helpful to your initial planning stages.

Firstly, a pivotal question: is your project a podcast or a compilation of interviews (e.g. oral histories) and/or sound clips? While this may not always be true, I often consider podcast episodes as audio narratives. What this means is that each episode should have at least a theme and a narrative that guides the listener through some main ideas. As such, this differs from simply compiling a series of sound clips or just publishing an interview. The host has the additional task of tying in the overall narrative of the collated clips, guiding the listener to follow the story that is being told.

In addition, as a podcast episode is primarily an audio narrative, certain features differ from a written one. For example, when planning and writing for an audio narrative (e.g. a script), simple words rather than multi-syllabic words are always preferred. Similarly, shorter sentences are easier to follow through an auditory medium. Hence, when planning for an audio narrative, it is important that we don’t simply read out an academic essay and really focus on how we can communicate complex ideas simply (Note: This is not simplifying complexity but using simple, concise language to communicate complex ideas!) I really enjoy this challenge, as it asks us (in the academy) to really consider our role as translators, especially because podcasts are fundamentally tools for public communication. Personally, in a class that I am currently teaching, I’ve asked my students to work on a podcast episode as their final assignment, and really asking them to consider how can they translate the knowledge they learn in the classroom to the larger public (e.g., I’ve asked them to think of their potential audience as a keen middle-schooler).

Podcasts are also creative projects! They’re not just an alternative means of public communication but also one that encourages us to engage with our senses differently. Within our conventional training, we often prioritize vision out of all the other senses. When you choose to try a podcast project, why not consider exploring what your auditory senses can do differently? For example, when thinking about the audio narrative you’re constructing, consider what sounds can help augment your points. If you’re including an interview with a gig worker, consider recording the background sound of their workplace and adding it to your episode as a way to immerse your audience in the story. Alternatively, we’ve also learned to note a fade-in and a fade-out as an auditory signal for when a clip is beginning and ending, and this transition can be very helpful when you’re piecing together different sound clips. For example, an abrupt ending in a podcast feels very similar to a jump-cut or a sudden blank screen in a film clip. Thoughtful background music, sound, and transitions all help in guiding listeners through an audio narrative.

I hope that this post is helpful for those of you who are thinking about starting a podcast project. I am always thrilled when people are exploring auditory mediums and sound projects, and it does seem that the remote learning/teaching/working environment has made many realize the importance of audio in our day-to-day communication. While in this post I have not gone into too many technical details for how to record, edit, and publish, I will leave you with a few resources and invite you to join our Sound Studies and Methods Working Group as well as set up a 1:1 consultation with us for when you’re ready to begin your podcast and/or audio projects.

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